At the end of her review of Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work, Vivian Gornick asserts that:
What is needed for a figure as iconized as Melville is a biographer possessed by a flash of original insight around which the "life" can be organized, the kind that is very little dependent on documentation. The only obligation of such insight is that it prove genuine, not fabricated, and that it deepen the writing until something true about the man who wrote Moby-Dick is acutely felt by responsive readers who are sure to recognize the close of a yawning gap when they see one.
Actually, what is needed is for would-be biographers to give Melville a rest from their labors for a while. Maybe forever. All that such works accomplish, in my opinion, is to encourage the idea, which Gornick expresses here, that what readers need is to know "something true about the man who wrote Moby-Dick." Readers don't need to know anything about the author of Moby-Dick; they need to read the novel. They don't need a biographer to organize Melville's life-story around "a flash of insight"; they need to read Melville's stories. The "yawning gap" that needs to be closed is not that between "the miles of scholarship informed by received wisdom that already surround Melville's life and work" and the effort to make Melville "live anew for the current generation of readers"; it is the gap between experiencing Melville's work for what it has to offer and settling instead for biographies that only deflect our attention from the work in favor of gossip about the writer. (From what I've read about Delbanco's book, it seems to be less guilty of this than many other biographies of writers.)
Gornick's main objection to Delbanco's biography seems to be that it is too dependent on the "authority" provided by previous commentators on Melville: "Now, Delbanco is a sophisticated writer who could easily have put these sentiments into words of his own. Yet he chose not to. Not, I think, out of the ordinary academic habit of piling up superficial appeals to authority but rather because he is intent on creating a brilliant surround for the work of a writer he does, in fact, love indiscriminately; one that is meant to draw us irresistibly inside the persuasion that Melville's work is not only majestic but inordinately protean: It can and does mean all things to all people in all times, accommodating itself easily to whatever system of interpretation the cultural moment brings into focus. . ."
"Inordinately protean" is really just a way of saying that a book like Moby-Dick is always worth reading and re-reading, that readers' experiences of the novel are always going to be productively various. No one interpretation is going to pin it down, and, despite Gornick's impatience with the citation of critical sources, becoming familiar with other interpretations is only going to enrich one's appreciation of Moby-Dick's literary accomplishments in the long run. In other words, the existence of so much critical commentary on Melville's work is only testimony to its continued relevance as writing that still lives in the present: an interpretation is always an act of recovery for the present, a translation of the work into currently pertinent terms of understanding. Gornick's "original" biographer identifying "something true" about Melville would actually have an effect exactly opposite of the one she supposes. It would remove Melville's fiction from the critical conversation surrounding it and subject it to the biographer's "insight," which, since it is an insight about the writer rather than what he wrote, would be all the more constrictive and extraneous, Melville the dead celebrity.
Ron Rosenbaum recently wrote something similar about Dmitri Nabokov's reluctance to have his father's legacy embroiled in biographical controversy:
I understand Dmitri's impatience with the biographical fetishism that has invaded literature—a product of celebrity culture, I’d argue. I certainly see it in the cultural capital of Shakespeare biographies as compared to studies of Shakespeare’s work.
If the destruction of The Original of Laura [V. Nabokov's unpublished final work] is inevitable. . .it’s the reductive biographizing—pathographizing—of literature that is responsible.
Read the works! Life is too short to care more deeply about the life of the one who wrote them, whose secrets are usually irretrievable anyway.